Joe Del Nano: Organic chemistry for the average Joe

Written by Colm Slevin
Photos by Pamela Smith
April 06, 2022

While he may be seen as an ultimate chemistry resource, Joe Del Nano would rather you think of him as an average Joe.

“I'm not a subject matter expert in organic chemistry—I don’t have an organic chemistry PhD or advanced degree,” Del Nano said. “I'm that friendly neighborhood Joe, who has done enough organic chemistry to where I feel like I've seen a lot of things and I can explain things very well.”

Olivia Vogler, a junior neuroscience major, said Del Nano is excellent at chemistry.

“He is amazing at chemistry and he is such a great resource for students,” Vogler said. “I used his videos a lot in Orgo 1 and he was actually my tutor. We would meet once a week and before all of my exams. He helped so much.”

Del Nano, a 2017 Pitt alumnus, is the founder of jOechem, a website and YouTube channel dedicated to helping students do well in Organic Chemistry, a class required for many science majors, including chemistry, biology and those on a pre-medicine track.

Del Nano started off his first semester at Pitt in organic chemistry 1 as a pre-med major, with intentions to go to medical school. But organic chemistry 2 changed his trajectory. Del Nano said there was one reaction from the class that made him reconsider what he wanted to do with his life — the Wolff-Kishner reaction, which turns a ketone into an alkane.

“The mechanism just speaks to me, and saying that I feel like someone should come up behind me and give me an atomic wedgie,” Del Nano said. “But that I felt like was such an ‘aha’ moment. And I was like, ‘I don't think I want to go to medical school anymore. I need to do something with chemistry.’”

Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

According to Vogler, Del Nano is a bit of a celebrity in Pitt’s Chevron Science Center, as many organic chemistry students watch his videos to help them study. 

“Everyone knows who he is,” Vogler said. “You can say ‘jOechem’ around anyone who has taken organic chemistry at Pitt and they’ll say they’ve watched his videos or found him helpful.”

Dan Koch, a 2017 Pitt alumnus and friend of Del Nano, said he was always a really friendly guy and does a great job at making people feel valued and appreciated. 

“He does a really good job at making people feel seen,” Koch said. “As long as I've known him, he's had a huge friend group. He really is always someone that is very kind to other people and makes them feel like he cares about them.”

After five years of jOechem and experience as an undergraduate teaching assistant for organic chemistry, Del Nano has some experience with teaching, but wasn’t always the most confident about being in front of a room explaining complex chemistry. 

“I'll never forget the first time I did reviews when I was a UTA. I loved organic chemistry, but it really kicked me in the pants to be in front of a room explaining things to a whole classroom of eyeballs,” Del Nano said. “I was super anxious and my voice was probably trembling and I remember leaving the room thinking, ‘Damn, I wasn’t as good at that as I expected to be right off the bat.’”

Del Nano recalled an email from a girl who attended the University of Washington who, after getting a concussion, used his videos to help her study for her organic chemistry 2 final. Del Nano said he can hardly believe people at Pitt use his videos for help, nevermind people from around the country and world. He feels it is the students who put the time in to watch his videos to study who do all the work, not him.

“Anyone who has ever said anything kind to me about jOechem or used it and it's helped them, they do all the work. I can make up to 6.022x1023 worksheets. It doesn't help anyone unless they sit down and do the work and do the learning that actually puts the knowledge in their head,” Del Nano said. “So it just felt like an incredible endorsement. And I was so proud of that.”

George Bandik, an organic chemistry professor, said he loves jOechem as a resource for students to turn to for help and can tell the students really find the content useful. 

“I actually recommend it to kids in my class,” Bandik said. “And several years ago, we actually asked him to come and talk at an [American Chemistry Society] meeting, about jOechem and how he started it, why he started it and all that kind of stuff. And the room was jammed. And people applauded him, because I think undergrads really greatly appreciate what he does.”

Bandik said the videos are really helpful to so many students because Del Nano doesn’t get too much into the theory, instead explaining the content in a way that is easy for students who need extra help to understand. 

“I think he's very special with Pitt students because he's a Pitt grad and I think that the jOechem stuff is very closely in line with the way we teach organic chemistry,” Bandik said. “I think it's because he was a student, he remembers what it's like to not know what something is and what explanations you need to get to get where you want to be. So I think that's the big plus.”

But jOechem is not Del Nano’s full-time job, despite the work he puts into it. Del Nano currently works in software engineering in San Francisco — the industry both his older and younger brothers work in. He said he pretty much followed the path his older brother took to get to where he is today.

“He did chemical engineering at Pitt and became a software engineer. So at least I saw that it was possible. So whenever I started to do it, I leaned on him as well as my little brother who was a CS student at Maryland a lot because they’re such knowledgeable people,” Del Nano said. “I was the last one living in Pittsburgh, and I was looking for a new job come early 2021. And my goal was either New York or San Francisco, and San Francisco worked out. FOMO drove me to move to San Francisco.”

Del Nano got his first job in chemical engineering in 2015 doing a co-op at EQT, a Pittsburgh-based gas company. They hired him as a petroleum engineer, but he ended up doing a lot of “busy work.” Del Nano said he aspired to be “the change from within,” but found the job to be miserable.

“I didn’t really go out to any well sites, I got ignored a lot and it was a miserable work environment. And I just remember thinking to myself, no one is happy here. This can't be the rest of my life,” Del Nano said. “And when I did get work, it was just clunky Excel spreadsheets that people pawned off on me said, you know, ‘Please make this better.’”

In his role as a chemical engineer at EQT, Del Nano began learning how to code. He credits his brothers, both software engineers, as mentors in coding. His new software skills allowed him to develop jOechem as a website.

“It was right at that point that I kind of had the idea, I should make a set of worksheets because I'm tutoring so much, as well as the whole like I'm enjoying programming,” Del Nano said. “And that was when I started talking to my brother, I was also seeing how much my older brother enjoyed his job in software. And I thought to myself, ‘Even if this doesn't turn into a job, this seems like something I would want to do and enjoy.’”

Koch said jOechem was a passion project for Del Nano, and was really just meant for him to help students with the subject. Even if he helped Del Nano professionally, that was never the intention.

“jOechem was really kicking off the first semester of my senior year. And it was really cool to see how passionate he was about it,” Koch said. “It was a selfless thing that he was doing. Not only in teaching and O-chem.”

Del Nano credits jOechem as the reason he’s now in software. He had to learn to program the website and, even though his degree was in chemical engineering, having experience in website development stood out to some employers.

“jOechem is the only reason why I'm a professional software engineer. I had some lead time between when I graduated in December 2017 and when my job with AstraZeneca started in September of 2018. So I had, like, nine months and I was very, very broke. So I needed a job,” Del Nano said. “And I found this random job on Indeed for this tiny little web development company in Greensburg using the same language I used to build jOechem.”

Del Nano has helped many students, but organic chemistry didn’t come easy to him, and there are topics he too struggled with. Hydrogen Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imagery, or H NMR, was a difficult topic for him.

“So I will say I was god awful at proton NMR the first time I learned it, I was so bad at it,” Del Nano said. “I remember my O chem 1 final, I literally left a whole 10 or 15 point question blank. Also, I don't even remember how to do this reaction, but I remember it was called an enantiomer selective heck reaction and that wrecked me. I was like, ‘If this is on the final I’m just taking the L,’ but luckily it wasn’t.”